There are those out there, not an insignificant number, who positively loathe Jerry Lewis. For them the iconic postwar comedian is insufferably self-absorbed, that he symbolizes a bygone era of show business excess at its tackiest, that his comedies are indulgent and unfocused, and that in public his comments, particularly during his long stint as host of the annual MDA Telethon, were frequently cringe inducing.
I'm an admirer of Jerry Lewis yet concede all of these points, though I'd also argue these facets of Lewis's character are partly what makes him so utterly fascinating. But Lewis's detractors and even many of his fans aren't aware of or appreciate the magnitude of his influence and how far-reaching his innumerable achievements are. With and without one-time partner Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis was one of the most phenomenally popular performers of the last century. Before Beatlemania there was Jerrymania, a strata with few peers, enjoyed perhaps only by Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Elvis, and maybe Michael Jackson. They all made movies, but Lewis and Chaplin are the only ones chiefly remembered today as movie stars.
And many don't realize Lewis was a major talent beyond his onscreen clowning. Defenders often point to his invention of the Video Assist, a tool he devised for The Bellboy that allowed simultaneous (and, soon after, instant playback) monitoring of performances via filmed video "takes." It's a technology still used today by virtually all filmmakers everywhere. But Lewis was, as his treatise on his art puts it, The Total Filmmaker. He was, for instance, an extremely efficient and genuinely innovative producer of many of his best films, a talent few recognize. Someone adapting, say, a Eugene O'Neill play in the early 1960s could do a lot worse than hire Jerry Lewis to produce it.
Exploring some of these points is Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis (2011), a made-for-television documentary, though it did get some film festival play first. The 116-minute show explores Lewis's art and achievements and is co-executive produced by Lewis himself. This last point has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Lewis is interviewed at great length and delves deep into his exhaustive personal archives (he seems to have kept absolutely everything) but it's also non-critical and avoids some topics completely. But like Robert B. Weide's similarly structured (if better overall) Woody Allen: A Documentary, A Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis is hugely entertaining and likewise makes the viewer feel like they are part of an intimate conversation with its subject.
Directed by Gregg Barson, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis is not a standard star biography. It mentions Lewis's past but leaves out or de-emphasizes quite a lot. Lewis's difficult relationship with his never-satisfied, frustrated ex-Vaudevillian father (whose son far eclipsed his own limited fame) is discussed a bit but the Jerry-Dean years are over and done with by the 30-minute mark. (Curiously, Jerry refers to Dean as "my partner," or with the pronouns "he" and "him," avoiding mentioning him by name.) Lewis talks about his fascination with the industry (as much as the art) of moviemaking and how he'd spend time between takes studying every facet of every department, but there's no mention at all of Lewis's elaborate home movies (sometimes featuring friends like Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) where he also learned the basics. It's not surprising Lewis's infamously unreleasable The Day the Clown Cried (1972) is not mentioned, but neither is Lewis's surprising comeback film, Hardly Working (1980), a very low-budget throwaway that shocked everyone by making a ton of money. Jerry and Dean's emotional reunion on a 1976 MDA telethon is shown, but Lewis's highly publicized, ignominious ouster from that organization isn't touched.
Instead, the documentary cuts among footage of 85-year-old Lewis performing and being interviewed between performances of a live world tour, often being photographed by the press and mobbed by fans; footage from Lewis's movies (emphasizing his 15 or so years at Paramount), including outtakes, make-up and costume tests from same, and behind-the-scenes footage; and a running commentary by Lewis admirers, including Alec Baldwin, Richard Belzer, Carol Burnett, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, Woody Harrelson, John Landis, Richard Lewis (no relation), Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. Dean's daughter Deana is interviewed as well, along with several of Jerry's adult sons.
The interviewees are well chosen as they express an informed admiration for Lewis's comedy both as a performer and as a filmmaker, pinpointing influences and his often overlooked exactingness and complexities in creating gags. Carl Reiner describes being "blown away" by a live Dean & Jerry performance in 1947, stating flatly that he's seen nothing funnier since. Baldwin aptly describes Lewis as "the Marlon Brando" of comedy. Someone else notes that Lewis's directorial efforts are more in the tradition of Buster Keaton than Chaplin because of the way Lewis creates so many laughs through editing and camera sleight-of-hand rather than mere performance.
Like Lewis himself, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis is occasionally indulgent, with Lewis rattling off statistics about his worldwide popularity (in one poll he tied with the Pope on a scale of worldwide recognition, he boasts, only to eclipse him the following year) and he makes the dubious claim that his $900,000 film The Bellboy made $300 million. Another example: for no discernable reason whatsoever, the film spends several minutes covering Lewis's friendship with "Jack" Kennedy. But for Jerry Lewis fans the show is a goldmine, and it's even likely to persuade a few non-fans into giving Lewis another chance.
And though not a young man any longer and despite serious health problems through the years (including a Percodan addiction, prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, and nearly fatal heart disease, all unmentioned), in his mid-80s Lewis still exhibits remarkable energy, especially when one considers comedians such as Groucho Marx, who by Lewis's age were but tissue paper whispers of their former glory. One inspired sequence shows Lewis performing a famous typewriter routine on what looks like footage from an early '50s Colgate Comedy Hour, again in the 1960s, and finally as part of that recent world tour. There's not a lot of difference.
Video & Audio
Presented in 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis looks terrific; even the older film clips and archive material is great while the new interview and documentary footage is up to contemporary standards. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, in English with optional English and, natch, French subtitles, is very impressive, with the live performances material coming off very well. The disc is region 1 encoded and has no Extra Features, alas.
For Jerry Lewis fans, this is an absolute must, while even non-fans should find it pretty fascinating and funny. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.